Less wiggle room in tight $168.7M schools budget
FAIRFIELD — The Fairfield school board is budgeting a bit riskier for next school year.
At a Jan. 17 special meeting to discuss the 2017-18 budget, board members and district officials reviewed some changes that make the $168.7 million superintendent-requested proposal closely reliant on projections, not leaving much wiggle room.
District administrators tweaked how they calculate staff retirements for the budget, using a model based on nine years of historical data to project what they believe will be the most accurate estimate. At the board meeting, Chairman Philip Dwyer said there is “risk” in budgeting tightly with the new calculation.
An additional change from last year, the initial budget does not factor in teachers to cushion elementary school classrooms “on the bubble,” meaning another student or two added to a grade at a particular school above projected enrollment would require the addition of another section.
When budgeting last year, the Board of Education requested seven teachers for “on the bubble” classes, but the positions were removed by the time the spending plan was approved by the other town bodies.
In the end, the district had to hire six teachers when classrooms went above preferred capacity.
Five classrooms are at the “on-the-bubble” mark for next school year, according to information provided by district administrators in response to board questions.
Asked at a Jan. 12 question-and-answer session on the budget with community members, Superintendent Toni Jones said the reduction of 13 full-time elementary school teaching positions gives her the most concern, due to its reliance on enrollment projections.
“Does that make me a little nervous? Yes,” she said.
The district hopes retirements and other forms of attrition will cover all or most of the reduction, rather than cuts to current staffing.
A major factor in next year’s enrollment projections centers around the district’s incoming kindergarten population. Last year’s estimate for the current school year inaccurately predicted numbers at Holland Hill, Mill Hill and McKinley elementary schools.
Enrollment projections can affect staffing distribution among schools and, at the Tuesday night meeting, Jones told the board kindergarten is the most difficult enrollment to predict. Interim Deputy Superintendent Karen Parks said the district is unsure why the numbers were so off on those schools, though overall district expectations were relatively accurate.
Holland Hill was expected to have 21 more kindergartners than actually enrolled, while McKinley’s projection was 24 below and Mill Hill’s was 10 below the actual number of enrollees.
When calculating for the 2017-18 budget, the board used the actual numbers, rather than the incorrect projections.
Next year’s budget is still in flux and already $2 million was cut from original budget proposals before the superintendent presented the spending plan to the board. In delaying several maintenance projects, the district saved more than $250,000 and saved another $500,000 by putting off the purchase of science texts and materials, a decision made in the hope for more clarity in future state standards and options for inquiry-based science materials.
The Board of Education meets to discuss and approve a final budget next Thursday, Jan. 26.